To start this (hopefully) annual series off, I thought I had to come out of the gate swinging, in regards to a film that seems a bit out there in its relation to the Halloween season. High Plains Drifter seemed perfect because no one would suspect a seemingly stereotypical Clint Eastwood western of being one of the most eerie flicks out there. Don't believe me? Let's do some convincing.
After cementing his place in spaghetti western history with Sergio Leone's masterful Dollars trilogy and giving the defining "loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules" performance in Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, Eastwood wanted to apply all he'd learned in front of the camera and step behind it for a shot at directing. His first effort, the equally unsettling Play Misty for Me, showed that the rugged man of the West also had a penchant for telling a good scary yarn. To follow up Play Misty for Me's critical and financial success, Eastwood decided to dip back into the genre that had made him a star, but to give it a decidedly creepy twist. With acclaimed screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (he won the Oscar for his screenplay of The French Connection) taking care of the script, Eastwood went off and made a film that takes his Man with No Name character and turns him into an actual supernatural figure, known only as The Stranger.
The film takes place in the town of Lago, where the local Marshal was murdered by a gang of outlaws while the entire town watched and did nothing. It's a brutal scene and inspired by the equally brutal true life murder of Kitty Genovese. Some time later, The Stranger strolls into town and eventually takes over, planning a warped welcome party for the murderous bandits. And it's a delightfully demented plan. He appoints a dwarf that he befriended as both sheriff and mayor, and forces the townspeople to paint the entire town red and rename it, "Hell." It all seems bizarrely humorous, until the climax happens and things get spooky.
When the crooks finally arrive, The Stranger is presented as an almost demonic figure, rarely seen or kept hidden in the shadows, dispatching the villains in a similar fashion as they had murdered the Marshal. The music by Dee Barton and cinematography by Bruce Surtees are both bone-chilling, and they turn a movie you thought you had figured out into something much darker. When the end arrives, the nature and purpose of Eastwood's Stranger is ambiguously spectral and places the film in the realm of a "ghost story", despite its Western dressings.
This is my favorite of Clint's westerns (yes, I just said that) mostly because it's one of the grimmer and meaner ones. The townspeople are just as guilty as the outlaws in the eyes of The Stranger. And of course I'm going to prefer it because it is a horror movie masquerading as another Eastwood western. It's masterfully made, with the entire movie lulling you with its familiarity, only to yank the rug out near the end and turn things into something out of a Stephen King short story. It's worthy of a watch and a good lead in for the horror movie month, before delving into some balls-to-the-wall fare. But, we'll get there. There's still thirty days to go!